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Out-of-town meeting by council does not violate meetings law

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    NMU         SOUTH CAROLINA         Freedom of Information         Feb 23, 2001    

Out-of-town meeting by council does not violate meetings law

  • Freeing town council members from distractions was a sufficient rationale for having the meetings at a resort, an appellate court ruled.

The Town Council of Hilton Head could continue to hold meetings at out-of-town retreats without violating the state’s open records law, the state Court of Appeals determined on Jan. 29.

Herbert Wiedemann, who represented himself, sued the town because the town council held a retreat from Dec. 1 through Dec. 3, 1995 at Dataw Island Club in Dataw Island, S.C. about 45 minutes from Hilton Head. Wiedemann attended the meeting at the restricted-access club only after contacting the council’s legal director ahead of time, who placed Wiedemann on an access list.

Wiedemann claimed that by holding the meeting out of town, the council violated the statutory requirement that public meetings “must be construed so as to make it possible for citizens, or their representatives, to learn and report fully the activities of their public officials at a minimum cost or delay to the persons seeking access to public documents or meetings.”

In ruling in favor of the town, the court of appeals reasoned the council benefitted from having the retreat outside the town because meetings held within the city become disrupted by personal calls and business resulting in distracted council members.

The decision marks the third time an appellate court has looked at this case. The same court of appeals upheld an earlier trial court decision in favor of the town. Wiedemann then appealed the case to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which found that there was no evidence on the record to support the town’s interest and sent the case back to the trial court for a further inquiry into the town’s interest. After hearing testimony by city officials and the retreat facilitator that the “remote locations result in better communications and interpersonal relations within the council, ultimately resulting in greater efficiency,” the trial court concluded again that the town’s interest outweighed the public’s burden in attending the meeting.

(Wiedemann v. Town of Hilton Head) CC

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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